views updated May 21 2018




Identification. The Cyclades are a group of Aegean Islands whose name derives from the fact that they form a circle (kíklos ) around the ancient sacred island of Delos.

Location. The Cyclades lie in the Aegean Sea to the south and west of the Greek mainland. They are the peaks of a range of submerged mountains, separated by deep channels from the islands to the south and east. Precipitation in the Cyclades falls mainly in the winter, beginning in November and tapering off by the end of March. Little or no rain falls in the summer. During the period 1971-1980, the island of Naxos had an average of 41 centimeters of rain, the largest amount falling during January, February, and March. As a whole, the Cyclades are rather dry; only the meteorologic station at Athens reported less rainfall during this period. Winters nonetheless tend to be chilly and damp, with an occasional snowfall. Temperatures in the summer are moderated by the proximity of the sea. The average temperature Reported at Naxos during July and August for 1971-1980 was 25° C, with highs of about 32° C. Temperatures may fall as low as 6° C in the winter. The average annual temperature was 18° C. The mild summer temperatures make the islands attractive to city dwellers fleeing the heat. However, the Summer also brings the fierce summer wind, the meltémi, which can make sea travel unpleasant during this time.

Demography. There are some forty-four islands in all, some tiny and uninhabited, others with numerous villages and flourishing main towns. The island with the largest Population is Syros, with 19,668 inhabitants (1981 census). The largest island in terms of landmass is Naxos, which has an area of 428 square kilometers. The Cyclades as a whole have an area of 2,527 square kilometers, which is about 1.9 percent of the land area of Greece. The total population of the islands is 88,458, less than 1 percent of the population of Greece. The number of inhabitants per square kilometer is 34.4. Thirty-seven percent of the inhabitants live in urban (population more than 10,000) or semiurban (population 2,000-10,000) areas, the rest in rural areas (communities of under 2,000). In general, the populations of the coastal settlements of the islands have increased, while those of the interior Communities have declined.

linguistic Affiliation. Although the history of the Cyclades has been one of constantly mixing populations of Migrants, conquerors, and refugees, the present-day population is basically ethnic Greek. There is a certain sense of island cultural distinctiveness, however, because throughout their history the Cyclades have been both connected and isolated by the sea, serving in their connectedness as way stations along trade routes and routes of conquest, open to a multitude of cultural influences, and in their isolation as places of political exile. The present-day inhabitants of the Cyclades speak modern Greek, with a variety of local dialects among and within the islands. Albanian has been reported only for the island of Andros. Some of the islands are visited by large groups of Gypsies (Tsigánes ), but they are not permanent residents.

History and Cultural Relations

It is difficult to generalize about the Cyclades as a whole, for each island has to some extent experienced its own unique history. Although visited by Paleolithic peoples seeking obsidian and other stone, the Cyclades seem to have been first inhabited in the late Neolithic (c. 5000 b.c.), and they were probably settled by peoples arriving from the Greek mainland. The islands flourished during the Bronze Age, despite the occasional destruction of some settlements by earthquakes. Although subject to the cultural influences of other areas (particularly Mycenean and Minoan influences) and to periodic invasions and/or waves of immigration, the islands developed a distinctive Bronze Age culture with a now well-recognized Cycladic art, perhaps most clearly represented in the characteristic Cycladic marble figurines. In the eleventh century b.c., at the end of the Bronze Age, the Cyclades underwent a decline in population, but by the ninth to eighth centuries b.c. their population began to grow again, and new settlements were established. In the classical period some Islands were the home of independent city-states. From the eighth century b.c. the island of Delos was an important holy place for Ionian Greeks; during Hellenistic times it was an International merchant community as well, and it continued to flourish into Roman times. Ravaged by Mithridates of Pontus in AD. 88, it fell into decline, and then eventually into oblivion with the arrival of Christianity. After the Romans, the Cyclades became part of the Byzantine Empire. It is uncertain exactly when Christianity came to the islands, but it may have been sometime in the late fourth or fifth century. By the late eleventh century the Byzantine Empire was no longer able to protect its Cycladic holdings effectively, and they were subject to raids by both Italians and Turks. Following the Fourth Crusade and the division of the Byzantine Empire Between the Venetians and the Crusaders, many of the islands fell into Venetian hands. It was during this period that the Islands acquired their Catholic populations. During the centuries of Venetian rule, the islands gradually declined, their populations ravaged by the depradations of pirates, by struggles among the local rulers, and by the Venetian rulers' conflicts with both Turks and Greeks. When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the position of the islanders became even more difficult. One by one, the islands were ceded to the Ottomans, with Tinos, the last to capitulate, surrendering to a Turkish fleet in 1714. After the Greek War of Independence from Turkey (1821-1829), the Cyclades became part of the newly formed nation of Greece. The population at this time appears to have been increased by Greek refugees from areas still under Turkish rule. The Cyclades probably reached the peak of their population in the nineteenth century, declining somewhat in the early twentieth century and then dropping precipitously through out-migration after World War II.


In general, the Cyclades are steep and rocky, though some Islands have stretches of coastal and interior plains. Although many of the islands appear to have had forests in ancient times, land clearing, shipbuilding, animal grazing, and the use of wood for fuel and house building have taken their toll, and today the islands are severely deforested and suffer from erosion by water and wind. Since prehistoric times, settlement seems to have followed a general pattern of nucleated villages (with some variation according to land tenure and kinship systems), the location being determined by the need for protection, shelter, and/or proximity to water and cultivable land. Each village is surrounded by cultivated fields, though some fields may be at a considerable distance from the village. Houses today are built of concrete block or reinforced concrete, but in the past houses were constructed of local stone, usually plastered inside and out, and whitewashed. Roofs were made of branches covered with packed earth or clay, or sometimes flat stone. On some islands pitched tile roofs are also found, though these are less characteristic of the Cyclades as a whole. Although "mosaic" floors are the norm today, one can still see the occasional traditional packed-earth floors in village homes. Aside from rafters, wood is rarely used in buildings except for shutters and trim (which may be painted in bright colors). There is generally one main town on each island, and this town today is often the port (though there may also be smaller secondary ports as well). In the past, villages were clustered for defense against frequent raids by pirates and Turks, and the main towns themselves (such as the port town of Naxos) were fortified or were situated inland for protection (as the now-deserted town of Exobourgos on Tinos). In some towns and villages remains of such fortifications with their thick exterior walls and small windows may still be seen. Nowadays, the nucleated village settlement pattern is being broken somewhat by the building of summer "country" houses, which may be located in fields outside the villages.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The major form of subsistence, in the past at least, has been agriculture, though fishing, trading, and commercial activities have also been important. Basic Mediterranean cropsolives, grapes, wheat, barley, fruit, and garden vegetableshave been cultivated, some since the Bronze Age. In addition there are specialty crops, which may vary by island. (On the island of Tinos, for example, silkworms used to be grown; Thera has had a history of wine making; Syros is noted for its dairying.) Goats and sheep are also raised on the islands, and sometimes cattle. There are also fishing communities. Agriculture follows a basic yearly round determined by the Mediterranean climate. Plowing for planting is done in the fall, after the first rains have softened the ground, winter crops are planted, and grain is harvested in early to midsummer. Some irrigation is practiced, particularly for garden vegetables, but dry farming is the rule for other crops. Fields are plowed periodically during the growing season with a shallow plow in order to prevent moisture loss from the soil. Not all islanders, nor even all villagers, own land, and even those who do may also work at other occupations or businesses in addition to farming. Several of the islands have marble quarries dating back to the Bronze Age. The marble of Paros and Naxos is particularly well known, and marble working is a craft with a long tradition. In the past, farmers grew more of their own food than they do today, particularly in the more isolated villages.

Trade. Trade with the outside world and migration have a long history in the islands. The inhabitants of the Cyclades have exported both their products and their labor, particularly as seamen, domestic workers, and construction workers. Both permanent and temporary migration have been practiced. Before the Greek defeat in Asia Minor in 1922 ("the Catastrophe"), a common destination of migrants was Istanbul (or "the City," as many Greeks continue to call it). Since then, the primary destination for migrants from the Cyclades has been Athens. Although out-migration seems to have slowed somewhat in recent years, the post-World War II movement to Athens has resulted in severe depopulation and the virtual abandonment of some of the smaller rural villages. Much of the more marginal agricultural land is no longer cultivated. Better agricultural land, however, continues to be worked in many areas, with new plantings of crops such as olives and grapevines, which require only periodic attention and seasonal labor. Greenhouse agriculture continues to be profitable. Recently, out-migration has lessened somewhat. This slowing of migration reflects the generally increasing affluence of the islands, mostly a result of tourism. On some of the islands, towns have actually grown in population, reflecting the increase in both foreign tourism and summer travel by urban Greeks. On these islands, new businesses have been opened, and greater opportunities for employment (for example, working in construction or in hotels and restaurants) are available now locally.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups. Patterns of sociability within island communities are structured around gender, kinship and spiritual Kinship, friendship, neighborliness, and (especially in larger towns) social class. Kinship is important in mutual aid, at Ritual events, and in arranging for migration. At the same time, loyalty to one's immediate family (whether natal or marital) takes precedence over other kinship ties, and bitter conflicts can occur among relatives, especially over matters of Inheritance. In addition, politics may also determine male patterns of sociability, and politics and factionalism may determine who frequents individual coffeehouses.

Spiritual kinship also plays an important role in island life, as it does elsewhere in Greece, offering the possibility of creating new economic, social, and political ties. Spiritual kinship is established through baptismal and wedding sponsorship, and those so related refer to each other as koumbáros (male) or koumbára (female). A godparent is nonos (male) or noná (female).

Kinship Terminology. Kinship, as elsewhere in Greece, is formally bilateral, with the bilaterality reflected in terms for consanguineal kin that follow a western European pattern of distinguishing lineal from collateral relatives, sex, and generation (Eskimo-type terminology). Terms for affinal kin distinguish relatives who have married into one's own family and members of the family into which one has married.

Domestic Unit. In general, island households tend to consist of married couples and their children. Although more extended forms of residential units (for example, those containing the parent of one of the spouses) are not unknown, they are not the norm, and the patterns of patrilocal residence noted elsewhere in Greece are rare. There is, However, a tendency toward matrilocal neighborhoods. Each Family owns its own land or other means of subsistence. Marriage is negotiated between families, though it is becoming more and more common for young people to take the initiative in choosing their own partners. Part of the negotiation is the arrangement of the dowry, to be given by the young woman's parents. Although dowry was legally abolished by the recent Socialist government, it is still an important social institution. It is common in the islands for a dowry to consist of a house, though other property (such as land) may also be given. Neolocal residence after marriage is preferred, though young people may live temporarily with one or the other set of parents.

Separation by gender is a striking feature of islandand particularly villagelife. Men's and women's tasks, use of space, and sociability are in many respects distinct, with the men's world centered on work and the coffeehouse (kafenío ) and the women's on the home, neighborhood, and religious activities. There is a close symbolic association of the woman with the house. Not only do most of a woman's tasks revolve around the house, but its order and cleanliness reflect her character and diligence, and her position as nikokirá (mistress of the house) is a source of power and influence. Houses may be passed on (through the dowry system) in the female line. Naming also reflects a sense of distinct paternal and maternal lines. The firstborn female is named after her mother's mother; the second, after her father's. First sons are generally given their paternal grandfather's name; second sons, that of their mother's father. Although women take their husband's last names at marriage, they do not take a female form of the husband's first name (as is the practice in some other areas of Greece). Women are responsible for the spiritual welfare of their families, tending the household icons, observing mourning rituals for the dead, and making vows and pilgrimages on behalf of family members.

Socialization. Children are raised in the household of their parents, usually with frequent help from other relatives, particularly grandmothers. Children also tend other children and form play groups. Verbal threats of a sometimes drastic nature are frequently employed in disciplining childrena common example is tha fas ksílo, "you'll eat wood"but physical punishment is unusual. Young children are expected to be shy with strangers, and this is considered normal. Boys are given considerably more freedom than girls, who are expected to stay closer to home and to help with household chores.

Inheritance. Inheritance is equal among all children, by Greek law and by custom. A daughters dowry counts as her portion of the inheritance. If the youngest child remains at home and cares for the aging parents, she or he is entitled to the family house and a somewhat larger portion of the Inheritance when the parents die.

Social and Political Organization

The Cyclades are part of the state of modern Greece. They belong to the geographic region known as the Aegean Islands, which also includes the Dodecanese, Lesvos, Samos, and Chios. The Cyclades themselves form a separate administrative unit or department (nomós ), containing eight eparchies, eight municipalities, and 109 communities (kinóites ), each of which generally is comprised of one or more villages. The town of Ermoupolis on the island of Syros is the capital of the nomos. Greece is a parliamentary democracy and, as Greek citizens, the inhabitants of the Cyclades participate in democratic political processes of the region and nation. Each community elects its own officials, as well as voting for regional and national candidates. Many migrants remain registered to vote in their home communities and Return there on election day to cast their ballots. The Cyclades can perhaps best be described as "middle of the road" with Respect to political affiliation. In the 1985 national parliamentary elections, for example, 45.39 percent of the islanders voted for the Conservative party, Nea Dimocratia, and 48.12 percent for the main Socialist party, PASOK. (The rest voted for various leftist parties.) In elections in the summer of 1989, the vote shifted to 49.09 percent for Nea Dimocratia and 41.18 percent for PASOK.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The majority of islanders are of the Greek (Eastern) Orthodox faith, though the Cyclades also have a large Catholic minority, the result of long years of Italian rule. Because the islands' Catholic populations are descendedin part, at leastfrom the Venetians who once ruled the island, religious differences are sometimes exacerbated by class differences.

Beliefs in magic, ghosts, and other spirits are still to be found among at least some islanders. The most widespread and enduring belief, however, is the belief in the evil eye (máti ). As elsewhere in Greece, no baby is ever seen without its blue bead, medallion, or other object to protect it from the harmful glance of those who have the "eye," and certain Individuals are believed to have the knowledge and skill to diagnose and counter the eye's ill effects.

The islands of the Cyclades derive their name from a holy place, the ancient sacred island of Delos, which once drew pilgrims and visitors from around the ancient world. Today, while the ruins of this ancient glory still attract foreign visitors, other islands such as Mykonos, Naxos, and Thera have also become notable tourist attractions. In addition, the Cyclades are the home of such important contemporary holy places as the Church of the Annunciation of Tinos and the Church of the Hundred Gates at Paros, popular destinations for Greek pilgrims, especially on major holy days. In general, the islands are becoming increasingly attractive to both tourists and urban Greeks who are drawn by the Cyclades's rugged scenery, picturesque towns and villages, and cultural diversity.

Ceremonies. The liturgical calendar structures the ritual year with its sequences of saints' days and other holy days. In addition, the life-cycle rites of baptism, marriage, and death are important familial and community ceremonial events. Each village has its particular saint's day, which is celebrated with a church service, visiting and eating at village houses, and eating, music, and dancing at the village tavernas. As elsewhere in Greece, one celebrates name days (the day of the saint for whom one is named) rather than birthdays. In recent years, these village saints' days (paniyíria ) have tended to become somewhat commercialized. They are advertised to townspeople and tourists, and sometimes the village even charges admission. The major religious holiday of the Greek Orthodox liturgical cycle is Easter. Preceded by the long period of Lent (Sarakostí), it is a time of intense activity in the island villages. Houses are cleaned and whitewashed, special Easter sweets are baked, and animals are slaughtered for the Easter feast. Many villagers who have migrated to Athens Return to their native villages for the holiday. The climax of Easter services comes at midnight on Saturday, when the church bells ring to proclaim the resurrection and the congregants join in a procession around the village in celebration. Afterward, families return to their homes to break their fast with a large meal, and there follow several days of celebration in the houses and tavernas.

Death and Afterlife. Although conventions of mourning such as the wearing of black are less scrupulously observed by a younger generation, death continues to be commemorated with a long mourning period (usually three years) marked by periodic memorial services (mnimósina ). At the end of this period, it is the custom on at least some of the islands to disinter the bones and place them in an ossuary, at which time the formal mourning period ends.


Barber, R. L. N. (1987). The Cyclades in the Bronze Age. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Bent, James Theodore (1884). The Cyclades, or Life among the Insular Greeks. Reprint. 1965. Chicago: Argonaut.

Dimen, Muriel, and Ernestine Friedl, eds. (1976). Regional Variation in Modern Greece and Cyprus: Toward a Perspective on the Ethnography of Modern Greece. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 268. New York.

Kolodny, Emile Y. (1974). La Population des Îles de la Grèce. 2 vols. Aix-en-Provence: Edisud.



views updated May 29 2018

Cyclades a large group of islands in the southern Aegean Sea, regarded in antiquity as circling around the sacred island of Delos.